Since his widely-acclaimed portrayal as the title character in TV’s James Dean in 2001, James Franco has appeared in almost ninety films and become a renaissance man of cinema. His filmography spans summer blockbusters (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Rise of the Planet of the Apes), inventive comedies (Pineapple Express, This is the End), and Oscar-nominated dramas (Milk, 127 Hours). Franco has also become a prolific writer, director, and producer, both during and after his tenure at New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. Franco’s latest directorial effort, Sal, opens in select cities on Friday, November 1st. Sal chronicles the last day in the life of actor Sal Mineo who appeared in Rebel Without a Cause, received two Oscar nominations before he was twenty, and was shot in Los Angeles at the age of thirty-seven. In anticipation of the film’s release, I recently enjoyed a conversation with Franco about co-writing and directing the film. Here’s what Franco shared with me about directing a period film on a budget, an innovative approach to the biopic genre, and crafting Sal.
Jackson Truax: You’re so prolific as an actor, writer, director, and producer, and you seem to constantly be taking on and generating more projects. Why is it important to you, not just to be working so frequently, but to be trying on new hats as you’ve progressed?
James Franco: Yes, I do have a few hats that I wear. I switch on and off. But they’re all things that I’ve been interested in for a very, very long time. I guess they haven’t all been in public, until the past eight years or so. But I am…a person that now believes in the idea of finding a form to fit content. Meaning, when I was only acting professionally, there were things that acting could do, and that I could express as an actor. Then there were things that I couldn’t do. And so by doing these other things, I’m better able to create projects that best express certain ideas.
JT: Earlier in your career you played James Dean, and that role earned you a lot of very well-deserved accolades. Did making that film give you any insight into Sal Mineo’s story or an awareness of it you wouldn’t have had otherwise?
Franco: Definitely. Playing James Dean introduced me to Sal Mineo’s work and planted the seeds for the later movie… I think James Dean was a huge influence on everybody that was in Rebel Without a Cause. Everyone from the director, Nicholas Ray, to Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, and Natalie Wood. He was just a force…and something that they all carried with them throughout their lives. I even talked to Dennis Hopper about it when I prepared for the role of James Dean. When [Michael Gregg Michaud’s] biography on Sal came out…a few years ago, it made me adjust my focus from Dean over to Sal. I thought there was something really interesting there, too, that could be said if I focused on his life. He was an equally passionate actor as James Dean. But he lived a little longer. He had a tragic end. But he also had to suffer the fading of his star. He was a very popular teen actor. He was nominated for two Oscars before he was twenty. Then, in his twenties and thirties [he] became less popular. I wanted to explore that a little bit. About what happens to a creative person, who is still doing great work, but for whatever reason isn’t accepted in the same way.
JT: Sal isn’t a biopic, but rather a very specific look at the last day of Sal Mineo’s life. How did you decide that was the best way to tell this story?
Franco: Once I started thinking about doing a movie about him, it was, “Well, how do I get away from it being a conventionally structured biopic?” Where you see a bit of his youth, and then how he made it. And then maybe there’s something tragic, or the “Behind the Music” kind of story, the up-and-down… I just wanted to get away from that. And find a more unconventional approach… I learned about what happened on his last day… Once I learned that he was actually rehearsing a play on his last day, and a few other basic things about what he might have been doing, I thought, “Here’s a way that I can basically say everything I want to say about his life and who he was in that last day. But I can also ratchet up the tension by giving the audience the knowledge that this is his last day.” So if they know that, then everything becomes amplified. This is his last rehearsal. This is the last time that he’ll ever talk to his boyfriend. This is the last meal. I thought it was a way to get all the information I wanted out. But it would also, because I was raising the tension, buy me a certain amount of leeway to tell it in a kind of slower, more intimate way. Because everything was already ratcheted up. I could then take my time. And really just let the audience be with Sal.
JT: Stacey Miller is the credited screenwriter, but four people share story credit, which is rare for a film based on a true story and/or book. Were the credited writers there initially finding the approach for adapting the book? What was that process?
Franco: Credits are weird. I don’t even know who’s on the credits. But I think the way it went down, was that I said I wanted to do a movie about Sal. We got the rights to the book… Stacey is somebody that I’ve known since acting school. She’s a good friend… I asked her to write it. I said, “Make it his last day. Find all the most interesting things about his last day. I know that I definitely want the rehearsal in there. I want to hear about his relationship with his boyfriend. I want to get some of the family stuff in there…” And then she went and wrote it.
JT: Sal is a film that takes place in 1976, and feels very much like a film from that era. Was that something you were consciously trying to achieve? How did you decide on and execute that approach?
Franco: If I look back on the movies that I’ve made since going to film school, a lot of them aren’t out yet, they’re all strangely period pieces… They either have subjects or approaches that are…not the most commercial. And some of them by choice. I know that going into it. So I have the challenge of making movies at a responsible price. But also trying to make them look good and period accurate… It’s kind of a style that we developed based on necessity. Where, we – my producers and my Production Designer, Kristen Adams – can’t spend a ton of money making over a whole city block to look like LA in the ’70s. So it’s really a case of them going out and finding ready-made locations, or locations that need very little work and shooting there. And they’re very good at it. We did it for this. And New York in the 1920s for [The Broken Tower]… As far as the shooting style, Christina Voros, the [Director of Photography], and I just talked about making it intimate. One of our biggest influences on this film was the work of the Dardenne Brothers (The Kid with a Bike), and how intimate they are with their camerawork. They stay very close to the characters. I thought that would be a way to get the audience in very close proximity to Sal. And allow them to get to know him, just by being so close to him. It’s almost like learning about him through behavior and almost by the process of osmosis, rather than just being told everything through dialogue.
JT: This isn’t a well-known cast of A-listers, but almost a cast of great character actors. How did you come to cast Val Lauren in the title role? What do you think he brought to the portrayal that was singular?
Franco: I’ve known Val since my first acting class at Playhouse West about fifteen-sixteen years ago. So he’s been a friend of mine for that long. When I played James Dean, I was still going to acting class… We talked about doing a one-act play involving James Dean and Sal Mineo just hanging out… He thought he should play James Dean. I just thought, “You’re making us do a lot of work for no reason.” Because he looked like Sal Mineo. And I looked more like James Dean… When this biography came out a few years ago and I started thinking about doing a movie about Sal, Val was absolutely the only person I thought of… Val was my friend. And I knew what a great actor he was. And how passionate he is. I saw a lot of parallels between him and Sal. So he was the only person I talked to about the role.
JT: You shot the whole film in nine days. Was that purely a budgetary concern, or was it something you wanted to do? What did it give you, and what were the biggest challenges it created?
Franco: It was fast. But it was the right amount of time for the approach to this material… We didn’t have any huge action scenes or set pieces that needed a lot of preparation. It was really letting Val go through some specific environments and experiences and just watching him. And letting him behave. So it didn’t seem that rushed. It felt like the right amount.
JT: There are so many good movies out right now, in the realm of broad escapism, as well as thought-provoking and emotional dramas. Why should audiences seek out Sal once it opens this Friday? What do you think it has to offer them that they can’t get anywhere else?
Franco: There are a ton of great movies out there… I don’t think there’s another movie right now that’s like [Sal]. I’ve seen most of them. I’m not saying that this is any better. In fact, it’s a lot smaller, intimate thing. But it’s the kind of filmmaking [that’s] very much inspired by recent Gus Van Sant films from Gerry to Elephant to Last Days to Paranoid Park. It’s a quiet kind of portraiture. It’s something that focuses on the character. And character through behavior… It’s about a figure that I think is important. And I think there are a lot of misconceptions about who Sal was. Some people might not even know who he is… I think he’s an important person to be remembered. So if you’re into that kind of filmmaking and are interested in the subject, I’d say that there isn’t another film out right now that’s like it.